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Packers find new life amid a Cowboys collapse for the ages

Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Packers tied a franchise record for the largest comeback in team history (23 points) with the win.

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Well that settles it. The Green Bay Packers absolutely adore the fact that Jerry Jones had the foresight to get this marvelous stadium built. They have visited it twice, and unadulterated magic has transpired both times.

Sunday was so sweet, so special for the Packers at AT&T Stadium that it was actually difficult for Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews to decide upon his favorite memory at this venue: The Packers' Super Bowl victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers in February 2011, or the ridiculously improbable 37-36 season-saving win over the Cowboys that he had just participated in?

"Two big wins right there,'' Matthews said, amid the giddy Green Bay locker room. "We like it. We like it a lot here. It's been good to us.

"I'll tell you what, I haven't felt this way in a long time. I feel like we won a Super Bowl. I know that might be a little premature in saying. But I feel like I'm in college again, the way we were celebrating on the sidelines.''

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Everybody associated with Green Bay felt a little younger and a little more carefree early Sunday evening. And why not? Trailing Dallas 26-3 at halftime in a game the Packers absolutely had to have to keep their playoff hopes alive, Green Bay scored touchdowns on its first five second-half possessions and tied a franchise record for the largest comeback in team history, at 23 points. All with backup quarterback Matt Flynn starting his third straight game in the place of injured starter Aaron Rodgers, and throwing four second-half touchdowns to spark the miracle win.

Nobody could scarcely fathom how it had taken place, but the Packers put together a rally for the ages, and now can somehow see their way to the playoff berth that has looked like a cruel mirage ever since Rodgers broke his left collarbone early in a Week 9 loss to Chicago. At 7-6-1, Green Bay remains a half-game behind first-place Chicago (8-6), and neck and neck with Detroit (7-6), which takes on Baltimore at home on Monday night.

But 7-6-1 never felt so good. Especially if Rodgers is finally ready to return for Green Bay's regular-season home finale against Pittsburgh next Sunday. This game wasn't just a potential springboard to bigger things for the Packers, it was a warp-speed catapult that sent them rocketing into the stratosphere. At least from an emotional standpoint.

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"What we overcame, I don't have the words,'' Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said, after watching his team outscore the Cowboys 34-10 in the final 30 minutes of the game. "My vocabulary's stuck right now. It was incredible. It took me everything not to cry.''

Imagine the tears the Cowboys could have shed. Even by Dallas standards -- and the Cowboys specialize in epic meltdowns -- this was no garden-variety self-inflicted devastation. This was a game Dallas utterly dominated in the first half, scoring on six of its seven possessions, but found a way to surrender in a flurry of second-half mistakes, including -- and stop us if you've heard this one before -- two crucial Tony Romo interceptions in the game's final three minutes.

With the win, Dallas (7-7) could have seized control of the NFC East with two weeks left, thanks to Philadelphia (8-6) falling hard at Minnesota, 48-30, earlier Sunday. Yes, the Cowboys can still win the division by winning their final two games of the season, at Washington next week and home against the Eagles in Week 17. But in Dallas, being in control of your own playoff fate just seems to imbue the Cowboys with the ability to dream up new and inventive ways to crush the hopes of everyone who bleeds silver, blue and white.

"This one is the hardest loss that I've experienced,'' said the Cowboys' Jerry Jones, quite a mouthful given he's now in his 25th season of NFL ownership. "I don't know that we've had a loss after having the lead [like that], playing as well as we were playing, and then to turn around and lose the ballgame. I haven't experienced that.''

As painful as the loss was for Dallas, the aftermath might be worse. The recriminations of the defeat started almost immediately, with Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett unwisely outing Romo in the postgame for having changed a run call to a pass on the game's pivotal play: the interception Romo threw to Packers cornerback Sam Shields with 2:46 remaining and the Cowboys clinging to a 36-31 lead. The play started as a 2nd-and-6 from the Dallas 35, but Shields' pick instead gave Green Bay the ball at midfield, with the Packers needing just seven plays to march to the game-winning 1-yard Eddie Lacy touchdown plunge.

"The idea was to run the ball and make them use clock,'' Garrett said. "Run it, and then if we have to throw it, throw high-percentage passes to keep the clock going and make them use their timeouts. Tony threw a pass on what we call a smoke or a flash, that we have accompanying run [calls] for if he gets a bad look. That's what happened on the interception. It was a run call that he threw the ball on.''

So, to recap if you're scoring at home: First Romo threw the interception, and then his head coach in effect threw him under the bus for doing so. Romo changed the play, and that play changed the game. And that game quite possibly changed the Cowboys' season.

Just to add a little more potential for in-house dysfunction in Dallas, Romo said his second interception, to Packers cornerback Tramon Williams with 1:24 left and the Cowboys trailing 37-36, was the fault of receiver Cole Beasley, who cut his route off prematurely. Beasley concurred, but that bit of miscommunication cost Dallas any chance to drive for the game-winning field goal (kicker Dan Bailey was 5-of-5 on the day) and put a Band-Aid on the whole calamitous affair.

But since when has Dallas ever taken the less-dramatic route and saved itself some grief? And let's not forget that a frustrated Dez Bryant actually left the field early for the Dallas locker room while the Williams' interception was being reviewed, earning the Cowboys receiver a new round of criticism for his act of immaturity.

"It hurts,'' said Cowboys linebacker Ernie Simms, of the biggest blown lead by Dallas since it lost a 24-point advantage at Detroit in 2010. "It's a tough pill to swallow, when you blow a lead like we blew it. Especially at home.''

It was a curious and bewildering turn of events for the Cowboys, who despite their 23-point halftime lead, managed to run the ball just eight times in the second half, thereby giving the Packers more time to rally. That despite running back DeMarco Murray gaining 93 yards on just 11 carries in the first half, an 8.5-yard average. In so many ways, it was a case of Dallas on Dallas crime once again.

"It's a good question. I don't know why they did that,'' Packers defensive end B.J. Raji said of the Cowboys' refusal to run the ball and milk the clock. "But I'm happy they did it. It was basically a playoff game, and to get this win down here brings back great memories. To be down by three scores in the second half and to still come back with the win, it just shows the desire. We want to win. It's not always pretty, but we want to win.''

I get the feeling the rest of the NFC might not want the Packers to keep winning. Green Bay could be a dangerous team in the playoffs, with a healthy Rodgers and after having survived the near-death experience of going 0-4-1 in the first five games he missed. In what Green Bay hopes is the last action he sees this season, Flynn was outstanding in the second half, finishing 26-of-39 overall, for 299 yards, four touchdowns, with one interception and a 113.1 passer rating. All four touchdowns and 182 of his passing yards came in the final two quarters.

"What a feeling,'' Flynn said. "We were all just sitting around at the end [of the game], and we were like, 'Is this real? Is this happening?' We fought so hard and were playing so bad in the first half, coming out in the second half and playing like we did offensively and defensively really says a lot about this team.''

Packers rookie running back Eddie Lacy (141 yards rushing on 21 carries), he of the national championship pedigree at Alabama, called the win "the best game I've ever been a part of,'' and Packers free safety M.D. Jennings said Green Bay stared into the abyss of a lost season at halftime, and rose to the challenge.

"We had a lot on the line right there,'' Jennings said. "It was basically do or die for our whole season. It didn't look good, but that's why you play for 60 minutes.''

The Packers thrived under the pressure, and the Cowboys wilted. Again. If Green Bay does make something out of this challenging 2013 season which now has new life, this day in Dallas will be where the story took a turn for the far-fetched and the magical.

"We could have very easily mailed it in, cashed it in, just because of where we're at in the season, missing our quarterback, all the injuries, and being down however many points at halftime,'' Matthews said. "It was definitely looking bleak. It kind of seemed like this might not be our night.

"But that game was definitely what we need right now. And if we get some help along the way, who knows where this team is moving forward?''

Who knows what the Packers might still have in store after Sunday's season-saving win? Once again Dallas, and this charmed stadium that the Cowboys call home, has served to put Green Bay in a championship state of mind.

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